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Vladimir Putin has ordered Russia’s defence ministry to begin evacuating its citizens from Kabul as the Kremlin expressed increased concern at the security situation in Afghanistan.
Moscow has sent four military transport planes to evacuate more than 500 people, the defence ministry said on Wednesday, including Russians and citizens of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.
The move followed US president Joe Biden’s decision to stick to a plan to withdraw all remaining US troops by August 31, defying international pressure from European allies and others to allow more time for evacuations of foreign nationals and at-risk Afghans.
Putin’s order marks a shift in Russia’s stance on the Taliban’s takeover. The Kremlin’s envoys had previously welcomed the seizure of control by the Islamist group, describing it as a potential boost for security in the region.
But there are now increased concerns about security in the Afghan capital, particularly after the Taliban on Tuesday blocked the road to Kabul airport for Afghans, threatening to cut off evacuations for those vulnerable to reprisals from the Islamist movement.
“It’s a developing situation. Time is tight. The situation remains very tense,” said Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman.
Taliban officials continued to stress that US troops must leave and that evacuation flights must cease by the end of the month.
“Foreign troops should withdraw by the deadline. It will pave the way for civilian flights to resume,” Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson, tweeted after a meeting with German diplomats in Doha on Wednesday. “People with legal documents can travel through commercial flights after 31 August,” he added, suggesting that other nationals and some Afghans would be able to leave the country in the future.
Biden, after speaking with G7 leaders on Tuesday, warned that meeting the August 31 deadline would depend on the “Taliban continuing to co-operate and allow[ing] access to the airport for those who we are transporting out, and no disruption to our operations”.
The US president had come under pressure from Britain, France and Germany in particular, to extend the US mission in Afghanistan beyond the end of the month. He pointed to security threats from Isis-K, an affiliate terrorist group, including to Kabul’s airport, as one of the main factors behind his decision to reject an extension.
More than 82,300 people have been evacuated since August 14 from Afghanistan, according to the White House, all facilitated by the continued US troop presence. Russia has already admitted about 1,000 Afghans, including Russian passport holders, permanent residents, and university students, according to an Afghan diaspora group in Moscow.
The Kremlin said that Putin had spoken to Chinese president Xi Jinping about the evolving the situation. The leaders stressed the importance of preventing instability in Afghanistan from spilling into neighbouring regions and said they would step up diplomatic efforts, bilaterally and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an Asian security body dominated by Moscow and Beijing, it said.
Russia’s ambassador to Kabul, who last week praised the Islamist group and declared there was “no alternative” to Taliban rule, blamed the US for the problems at Kabul airport.
“International flights have been canceled because of the chaos at the Kabul airport created by the Americans. We heard that the flights should be resumed in the near future, but as of now there are no necessary guarantees,” Dmitry Zhirnov told RT, the state-funded Russian news network.
He added that Moscow was working on getting a “small group” of embassy staff out of the country, though he described these flights as ordinary work and holiday trips rather than evacuations.